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ND sociologist examines ‘trophy wife’ stereotype

| Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Do “trophy wives” really exist? Do wealthy men marry women solely for their beauty? Does perceived attractiveness have any impact on how people select their partners?

Elizabeth McClintock, assistant professor of sociology, set out to answer these questions by conducting research on the “trophy wife” stereotype and its impact in determining partner selection. Her research Beauty and Status: The Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection?” will be published in the American Sociological review.

“I’ve always been interested in how gender stereotypes are mostly really inaccurate,” she said. “The trophy wife stereotype, to me, was a really obvious one. The belief in that stereotype is pretty powerful across a lot of cultures”.

In her study, McClintock used a large, nationally representative sample of couples rated on attractiveness while factoring in levels of education, socioeconomic status and other traits. Her findings indicated that the levels of attractiveness and socioeconomic status from both partners were typically well-matched.

The results also suggested that people who use beauty to gain socio-economic status through their partners were rare. According to McClintock, the only couples who exhibited a closer adherence to the trophy wife stereotype were younger couples in less-committed relationships.

“I took data that ranked couples’ attractiveness and showed that people mostly match on beauty,”  McClintock said. “What my data says is that if you have a really big sample of couples, [the trophy wife stereotype] doesn’t happen enough for it to be a statistically significant pattern in the data.”

McClintock said the belief in the trophy wife stereotype arises from a cultural tendency to selectively observe certain traits in partners depending on their gender, such as mainly observing physical appearance in women and socioeconomic status in men. She said she hopes that her research will help broaden public perceptions on partner selection and help dispel myths regarding the ways people view men and women in relationships

“I hope that it has an impact in terms of how people think of valuing men and women,” McClintock said. “ The trophy wife stereotype tells women that your achievements don’t matter; it’s only about how you look. It sets marriage as something very shallow.”

McClintock  said the belief in the trophy wife status also presents a problematic issue in sociological circles. She said sociologists often demonstrate reluctance to embrace the simpler explanation of partner selection — that partners tend to match on the majority of aspects — and rather tend to formulate complex patterns of beauty-status exchange.

“I hope that it will have an effect in academia. I think that there is a tendency in academia for people to look for the truth in stereotypes and sometimes to look for a more complicated story,” McClintock said. “I think sometimes sociologists tend to ignore the obvious and look for a more complicated pattern.”

McClintock said she is currently expanding her research on partner selection by investigating assumptions regarding interracial couples, specifically the idea that Caucasian men and women only marry partners who identify as minorities if they are considered to have a higher income or education.

“I want to continue looking at these gender-race stereotypes in partner selection,” McClintock said. “I hope to show that people actually select people they are compatible with.”

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